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Coles v. Harris Teeter, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 14, 2016

TREVIS COLES, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Trevis Coles brings this action against his former employer, Harris Teeter, alleging the grocery store fired him because of his disability. Having successfully removed the case, Defendant now moves to dismiss on the ground that the Complaint fails to state a plausible wrongful-termination or discrimination claim against it. As the Court agrees with the former contention but not the latter, it will grant the Motion in part.

         I. Background

         The Court, as it must at this stage, draws the facts from the Complaint and assumes them to be true. Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). Plaintiff lives in the District of Columbia and suffers from glaucoma. See ECF No. 1, Exh. A (Complaint), ¶¶ 2, 6. In December 2015, his doctor prescribed him marijuana to help alleviate the symptoms of his disease. Id., ¶ 7. According to the District's Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Treatment Amendment Act of 2010, D.C. Code § 7-1671.01, et seq., Coles properly registered that prescription with the D.C. Department of Health and received a medical-marijuana card for this purpose. Id., ¶¶ 7-8.

         Several months later, around March 6, 2016, Defendant hired Coles to work on an at-will basis as a cashier in one of its grocery stores. Id., ¶ 9. He performed well in that role by reporting early for his shifts, taking on additional responsibilities, and avoiding any disciplinary trouble. Id., ¶ 11. A month or two in, however, Coles's number got called for a random drug screen at work, and he tested positive for marijuana on May 4. Id., ¶¶ 12-13.

         Coles explained to his Store Manager, Dan Kuzor, that he used physician-prescribed medical marijuana to treat his glaucoma. Id., ¶ 14. Kuzor assured him that the positive screen would not be a problem so long as Coles provided a valid prescription to this effect. Id., ¶¶ 14-15. Three days later, on May 7, Plaintiff did so. Id., ¶ 15. Harris Teeter nevertheless fired him on May 10 for violating its substance-abuse policy. Id., ¶ 16.

         On September 15, Coles filed this suit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, asserting that Defendant had unlawfully terminated him. See id. at 1. Having removed the case to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdication, Harris Teeter now seeks to dismiss it.

         II. Legal Standard

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require a plaintiff to include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 12(b)(6), in turn, provides for the dismissal of an action where such a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

         In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow, 216 F.3d at 1113 (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (citation omitted). The pleading rules are “not meant to impose a great burden, ” Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), and “detailed factual allegations” are thus not necessary. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint, however, “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The Court need not accept as true “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The facts instead “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” even if “recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff presses two independent state-law counts in alleging that Defendant unlawfully terminated him. The first asserts a wrongful-termination claim arising under the District's common law, and the second alleges that Defendant fired him because of his glaucoma in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act. The Court takes up the sufficiency of each allegation in turn.

         A. Wrongful Termination

         In considering Plaintiff's wrongful-termination claim, the Court starts with the well-established principle that “in the District of Columbia . . . an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.” Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1991). District of Columbia courts, however, recognize a very narrow public-policy exception for cases in which “the employee's termination offends some ‘mandate of public policy' that is ‘firmly anchored in either the Constitution or in a statute or regulation which clearly reflects the particular public policy being relied upon.'” Bilal-Edwardsv. United Planning Org., 896 F.Supp.2d 88, 94 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Carson v. Sim, 778 F.Supp.2d 85, 97 (D.D.C. 2011)). In other words, a plaintiff pleading a wrongful-termination claim based on the public-policy exemption must identify a policy source that ...

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